Picturing Jonestown: Visual Media and the Social Constriction of History

It took three days for the bodies to appear.

When news filtered out of Guyana about the emerging Jonestown tragedy, file photos of Leo Ryan and the three journalists killed at the airstrip ­– offset occasionally by images of Jim Jones wearing his now-iconic gold-rimmed sunglasses – supplemented the understandably meager initial media coverage. Several thousand miles from Jonestown, no one really knew what was happening. On 21 November, however, more immediate photos of the bodies appeared, and the scale of the horror began to dawn. The New York Times ran an AP photo of the poison-filled washtub on the duckboards, a few bodies visible in the mud on either side. Time magazine used the same image for its 4 December cover story, “Cult of Death.” The Chicago Tribune ran one from inside the meeting hall, more bodies huddled together where they fell among the benches. It was Frank Johnston’s wide angle image for the front page of the Washington Post, however, that conveyed the magnitude of the tragedy: scores of bodies on the ground, stretching to the edges of the frame, all but a very few face-down.

For those who know no more, this has become Jonestown and these few images the totality of Peoples Temple. Run a Google image search for either, and the results are relatively few. Stark and simple, drawn from media sources cited above, two images dominate: tight shots of bodies lying on the ground, their limbs intertwined, and photos of Jim Jones, speaking, preaching, or looking over his shoulder, his eyes wide, wary and suspicious behind his sunglasses. For how many is this the reality of Peoples Temple? For how many have the thousands of men, women, and children who passed through its doors since 1955 but who did not pass away during the White Night of 1978 been reduced to these few harsh, cropped, constricted images? Arguably, for most.

Few dispute that in the history of late modern new religions, Jonestown is a watershed—a divide established at least as much by what people saw as by what they learned, as much by the images as by the news. As theorists such as David Freedberg (The Power of Images), Thomas Mathews (The Clash of Gods), and David Morgan (The Lure of Images and The Sacred Gaze) argue, the power of the image lies principally in what it creates not in what it represents, its participation in the social construction of reality not its place on the sidelines as a mute, two-dimensional witness. That is, images are not merely epiphenomenal; in this case they are constitutive of new religious reality and contribute in powerful ways to its ongoing social construction.

In the three decades since the murder-suicides at Jonestown, scholars have employed a variety of analytic and interpretive tools in an effort to understand more fully what happened both in the days leading up to the White Night and in its aftermath. The dynamics of charismatic authority and the charismatic bond, the evolution of theology and social alienation, the problem of failed (or failing) prophecy, the albeit rare intersection of new religion and violence—all these have been explored in an effort to explain the events of 18 November 1978. Indeed, for most of its history, the academic study of all new religions has been approached from a variety of fairly standard disciplinary perspectives. Ethnographic accounts have helped us understand the lived new religious reality, the everyday practice of believers. Sociologists have investigated new religious attraction and the means by which potential adherents are recruited, members retained, and defections explained, while psychologists have asked whether those who are attracted differ substantially (or at all) from putative demographic norms. Historians have placed the emergence of new religions in contexts larger than the singular moment of their popular appearance and demonstrated the various ways in which they are (and, perhaps more significantly, are not) new. In the flood of books and articles that have appeared, what has gone all but entirely unnoticed is the visual aspect of new religions—from snapshots and photographs, to newsletter artwork and advertising flyers; from altar carvings and religious dress, both formal and informal, to impromptu devotional icons and video recordings, both raw and edited—all the multivariate visual media that help structure, not merely represent, new religious reality. Indeed, in four decades of dedicated study, visual media and material culture—whether produced by or about different new religious groups—has been all but ignored by new religions scholars.

“Images are not neutral,” writes art historian Thomas Mathews in The Clash of Gods. “They are not just stories put into pictures.” Or, in the case of Jonestown, pictures inserted into stories, a strategy not limited to mass media. For the Peoples Temple entry in Oxford’s New Religions: A Guide, for example, the two images used are the washtub and duckboard photo from the New York Times and a head-shot of Jones in his sunglasses, eyes wide, looking back over his shoulder. “Images are dangerous,” Mathews continues. “Images, no matter how discreetly chosen, come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories; no matter how limited their projected use, they burn indelible outlines into our mind. Often, images overwhelm the ideas they are supposed to be carrying.”

It is this aspect to which scholars of new religions must begin to pay attention, to understand how images of new religions—whether produced by and for the group itself (such as the ubiquitous pictures of L. Ron Hubbard as part of the Church of Scientology’s ongoing hagiography) or mass-mediated images intended as cultural shorthand and subject to the conceptual and ideological constraints of late modern journalism—which is what we experience with the images from Jonestown. That is, what happens when the images are not “discreetly chosen,” but have been deliberately selected for maximum emotional and often propagandistic effect? What happens when the images do not simply “come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories,” but are intended to create or shape those memories, to intentionally “burn indelible outlines into our mind”? As scholars, we must begin to take seriously the processes by which “images overwhelm the ideas they are supposed to be carrying.” In the case of Jonestown, this means the reduction of Peoples Temple and its nearly 25 year history to a few iconic images. Even more than its social construction, the selection of images and the way they are displayed contributes to the social constriction of history.

Since their earliest usage in pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines, images have inevitably reduced and foreshortened the complexity of phenomena they were meant to illustrate or augment. In the age of new media, of Google, RSS feeds, podcasting, blogging, and the vast, unregulated pool of imagery available online, images such as those few from Jonestown have become a kind of clip art, media shorthand that can be deployed as easily as hitting Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V—and often as thoughtlessly. Because of this, two things happen: reinforcement and iconization. First, Internet research indicates that those who use search engines like Google rarely pursue their search more than three screens into the results, which means that those images that come up first tend to replicate at the top of future search returns. If those images are captured and used elsewhere online, this contributes further to their self-limiting replication, to their reinforcement as the dominant images linked to particular phenomena. The more they are searched, used, and hyperlinked, the more they constrict the range of possible images, the further off the screen, for example, they push pictures of Jonestown before the White Night, pictures of farming, of volleyball, of group members enjoying each other’s company, of anything other than the horror of mass suicide and murder. Thus, these few images become ahistoric icons for the event: there is no history, only the endless present of the image, a present that is resurrected each time something happens, each time there is an event for which Jonestown can serve as a quick-and-easy (if inaccurate) referent: the Branch Davidian firestorm at Waco, the Aum Shinrikyô attack on Tokyo subways, the Heaven’s Gate suicides in San Diego, the self-destruction of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda. From people with hopes and dreams, families and friends, through the self-limiting replication of the image they have become, as Jean Baudrillard would say in Simulations, part of the precession of simulacra: the movement from “the reflection of a basic reality”—that the tragedy of the White Night at Jonestown took place—to the point at which “it bears no relation to any reality whatever”—that these images now stand for everything Peoples Temple was and will be.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. If this is the case, then arguably the most important question we can ask is: Which thousand?

(Douglas Cowan is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Social Development Studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at decowan@uwaterloo.ca.)